Friday, 9 April 2010

“Franklin Pierce”, by Michael F. Holt (Times Books)


America’s little-known 14th President: The genial but troubled New Englander, whose single-minded partisan loyalties inflamed the nation’s simmering battle over slavery

Charming and handsome, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire was drafted to break the deadlock of the 1852 Democratic convention. Though he seized the White House in a landslide against the imploding Whig Party, he proved a dismal failure in office.

Michael F. Holt, a leading historian of nineteenth-century partisan politics, argues that in the wake of the Whig collapse, Pierce was consumed by an obsessive drive to unify his splintering party rather than the roiling country. He soon began to overreach. Word leaked that Pierce wanted Spain to sell the slave-owning island of Cuba to the United States, rousing sectional divisions. Then he supported repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which limited the expansion of slavery in the west. Violence broke out, and "Bleeding Kansas" spurred the formation of the Republican Party. By the end of his term, Pierce's beloved party had ruptured, and he lost the nomination to James Buchanan.

In this incisive account, Holt shows how a flawed leader, so dedicated to his party and ill-suited for the presidency, hastened the approach of the Civil War.

I knew nothing about Franklin Pierce before I started this slim volume. The brief explanation above is a perfect introduction and encapsulation of who he was and what he had to deal with as president.

Holt deals with his early life quickly and efficiently, explaining how he was not the bookish type at Bowdoin, preferring to “roughouse” with his fellow classmates than to hit the books. In his final year, however, he found inspiration after finding himself at the bottom of his class, and realising that he would need better grades if he wished to be a lawyer or have a possible future in politics. As it turned out, he was particularly gifted for his legal career:

“He displayed a prodigious memory for names and faces, a trait that obviously benefited him in his political career as well.”

When it came to court cases, he seems to have taken a route that is not entirely unfamiliar with today’s lawyers and politicians:

“Pierce directed his arguments to the emotions of jurors, not to their collective logic, and he usually won.”

He enjoyed a surprisingly successful career in state-level politics, partly because of the esteem in which his father was held, but also because his genial and affable character and attractive person. On the “striking ease” of Pierce’s political ascent, Holt attributes it (not entirely complementary) thus:

“On Pierce’s part, this was primarily attributable to his amiable personality and his astonishing memory for people’s names and faces. He had, in short, the instincts of a clubhouse pol, and he was likely overconfident about his ability to win over others with his charm. Pierce was a good public speaker, in part because his memory allowed him to eschew written texts and notes, but there’s no evidence that anything he said was deep or original.”

One of his defining characteristics, both pre-, during and post-presidency, was his considerable personal investment in Democratic politics. After being elevated to the national Senate (with very high election totals), he loyally served the Democratic platform throughout his tenure. Even after resigning his Senate seat a year early, in Feb 1842, he would remain highly active in New Hampshire Democratic politics, so important were his political beliefs.

“For Pierce, the unity of the Democratic Party, both within the state and within the nation as a whole, was a fixation, a shibboleth, virtually a be-all and end-all. His obsession with obtaining that unity would help wreck his presidency.”

One momentous and important event that shaped both the politics of the age and also (perhaps especially) Franklin Pierce, was the Mexican-American War (1846-8). After holding out for a proper commission, due to his “conviction that someone of his age and stature deserved a command in the regular army”, he was made brigadier general of a New England regiment. He started his military career with a good job at Vera Cruz, but then followed it with some of the worst luck on the field that made him look both cowardly and weak.

In a parallel with the 2008 election, Pierce’s election in 1852 included a call for new blood in politics, and especially on the Democratic ticket – “young blood, young ideas”, as opposed to “old fogies”. Pierce’s nomination and election were seen by some as “a generation… passing away” and that “Young America… is about to rule”. Like many party nominations in the early decades of the USA, Pierce’s was a long battle – winning on the 49th ballot, as one of early America’s many ‘dark horse’ candidates. This is, actually, one of the better parts of Holt’s work, as he describes, in great detail, the process of Pierce’s nomination and campaign. However, his long nomination meant he had a lot of different factions to appease when he entered office.

Pierce clearly suffered from some form of alcoholism, although does seem to have been a functioning one. From his early days to, especially, his post-presidency, his alcohol consumption was frequent, if not to excess. As a youth, he was a typical man of the times:

“In the 1820s, young men were as likely as those today to seek amusement and drink heavily in bars, and there seems little doubt that the gregarious and fun-loving Pierce enjoyed socializing with his friends. From his perspective, not to do so would be an insult to those friends.”

In his post-presidency years, however, his drinking took on a heavier, less sociable aspect. After the death of his wife, Jane, in December 1863, and May 1964 death of his dear friend, the author Nathaniel Hawthorne, his drinking took on a more deleterious impact on his life, and he was found on occasion at home after long, solitary drinking binges. He would ultimately die of liver complications, October 8th 1869.

I had high hopes for Franklin Pierce as, if past experience was anything to go by, the biographies on the lesser-known presidents have thus far been pretty great  (Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and those who served towards the close of the 19th Century) and in many ways more interesting than those on better-known presidents (Nixon, Washington, Lincoln, to name but three). I must admit, however, that this was not the best book in the series. Holt’s biography is relatively quickly paced, but his style isn’t as fluid as some of the other historians and authors who have contributed to the series, which sometimes diminished the reading experience. I didn’t find myself drawn in as much as I had hoped, as there was no fear of re-hashing information from other books I’ve read (not counting general books on the presidency and the men who occupied the office).

This is not to say that it’s a bad book; far from it. I think Holt was hindered by the relative lack of information about Pierce, not to mention the overshadowing of Pierce’s administration by the incompetent Buchanan and the mythologized Lincoln who followed him. He clearly struggled with his desire to please all factions of the Democratic party, which ultimately resulted in him pleasing nobody. His sympathy for Southern states was another issue, as it put him on less-than-noble side of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and slavery issue as a whole (he also predicted a bloody civil war should the South secede). The treatment of Pierce’s energetic focus on foreign policy is excellent, accessible and just the right amount of detail to keep you reading without burying you in facts or lengthy prose. Likewise, he post-presidential years are also treated in an accessible and interesting way, highlighting Pierce’s continued interest in Democratic politics. It also offers a most interesting treatment of Pierce’s character, and the empathy he was able to show to his friends and close associates – indeed, Holt is able to offer a number of glowing comments from acquaintances.

If you’re a collector of the series, as I am, then you should certainly buy the book, as it adheres to the mission statement of the series – that is, short biographies equally accessible to students, academics and casual enthusiasts.

The book is accessible, interesting, and well worth reading. It is also one of the only biographies on Franklin Pierce easily available in the UK (and perhaps also the US). The picture I’ve drawn from Holt’s book is that he was a genuinely sincere man, genial and well-liked by his fellows in politics and private life. Holt’s opinion of Pierce, ultimately, is borne out by his book, placing less responsibility for his relative failure in office on Pierce’s personal or intellectual faults. Instead,

“rather than see personal weakness as the source of his missteps in the White House, I attribute Pierce’s most fateful decisions to his obsession with preserving the unity of the Democratic Party.”

A worthy addition to the series.